'Sherlock' goes 'Man of Steel': Should heroes have a license to kill?

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Image Credit: Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films for MASTERPIECE

The Sherlock Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch is the most brilliant problem solver on television. The Sherlock Holmes played by Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary comes pretty close, but I give the edge to the “high functioning” sociopath with the “mind palace” in his head. (Now that’s some Intelligence.) The third and final installment of Sherlock’s third season challenged the master detective with a most vexing conundrum, a test of both imagination and morality, one that has become increasingly popular in our hero fiction of late: To kill or not to kill.

Sherlock and crime-fighting colleague, best mate, and life partner John Watson (Martin Freeman) met their match in the form of Charles Augustus Magnusson, played to slimy perfection by Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen. The malevolent media baron was a blackmailer who had dirt on every power player in England, which meant he effectively controlled the country. He also knew that John’s new wife, Mary (Amanda Abbington, Freeman’s real-life squeeze), had a secret past as a vicious CIA assassin. Such was Magnusson’s power that even Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) and British intelligence were too scared to move against him, mostly because they didn’t know his biggest secret: Where the fiend kept his secrets. Presumably, James Bond tried and failed at this mission.

But not Sherlock and Watson. They discovered that the diabolical mastermind had a mind palace, too, one with seemingly infinite storage space. Magnusson was the kind of big bad that Sherlock hated most: A bully. More, he was a bully who threatened the bliss of Sherlock’s best friend — a bliss that, in last week’s memorable wedding toast to Watson and Mary, Holmes vowed to protect with his life. Sherlock’s dilemma: How to neutralize Magnusson’s threat and honor his promise without murdering him? Sherlock crunched the problem with his super-computer brain and arrived at most logical solution: Get over the whole “without murdering him” thing. And so Sherlock blew Magnusson away. Elementary, really.

When Sherlock pulled the trigger, I immediately thought of Man of Steel, and Superman’s choice to save all of humanity from enslavement and/or extermination by snapping Zod’s neck following an epic super-human boss fight that destroyed Metropolis and presumably killed thousands. Superman’s decision seemed justifiable. It wasn’t a big blue Boy Scout thing  to do — it was a black-op Navy Seal thing to do, albeit executed in broad daylight. And yet, Superman’s world-saving wetwork caused a disturbance in the geek force. It was as if a million fanboy voices cried out in unison: Superman does not kill! He is physically, intellectually and morally perfect! He represents fully realized human potential! He should have demonstrated his superiority — and expressed his character — by finding a solution to the problem of Zod without degrading himself! Now, in the spirit of the one true Superman, who inspires us all to be our best selves, let us respond by … saying mean things about Batfleck on the Internet. Because THAT’s what perfect character Superman would do!

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Image Credit: Clay Enos

Kinda kidding. My point: Sherlock is a speed thinking data cruncher/tree map calculator and tactician capable of solving any problem with reason and imagination. See: His faked death. Surely he could have come up with a different solution. My questions: Did Sherlock make the right choice by killing Magnusson? Did he make the best choice? And by “best” I really mean this: In character or out of character? Did Sherlock affirm the Sherlock we know or subvert him by making him go 007 on Magnusson?

Given that this has been a very ‘meta’ season of Sherlock, part of me wonders if writer/exec producer Steven Moffat made this happen to get us asking these questions, not only about Sherlock, but about current trends in pop culture. Since 9/11 ushered in the age of terrorism — and the age of by-any-mean-necessary justice — pop culture’s superheroes have either gone Zero Dark Thirty, or tied themselves into knots trying to avoid it. J.K. Rowling had to concoct some tortured logic regarding wands and spell-casting to allow Harry Potter to “kill” Voldemort without really “killing” him. Also see: Batman Begins. The Dark Knight could have saved the day and saved Ra’s al Ghul’s life in the end. Instead, the caped crusader allowed the fundamentalist terrorist to perish and let himself off the hook with this logic: “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”

The uproar over Man of Steel could be interpreted any number of ways. After a decade of dark vigilantes, and after a decade of having rationalize real-world “do what is necessary” responses to evil, perhaps audiences are ready for a new, redemptive kind of heroism. No more hip and cynical dark knights; give us some of that old school dudley do-righting! Other recent stories have reflected this turn. See: Arrow giving up killing; Jesse Pinkman throwing away the gun and refusing to damn himself anymore than he already had in the Breaking Bad finale.

Then again, perhaps the MoS backlash was really just an expression of the new Geek Fundamentalism that has emerged in post-Geek Hollywood. Once, fanboys swallowed the bitter pills of high gloss blockbuster treatments of beloved fringe pop icons that deviated from canon — usually in the name of “realism” and minimizing the”silly” to court mass appeal —  simply because they appreciated the affirmation implicit in “high gloss blockbuster treatment.” See: the organic web-shooter heresy of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies; the no-costumes maxim of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie; the ‘no flights, no tights’ rule of Smallville. These were painful alterations, and there was noisy complaining. But hey: At least it wasn’t Roger Corman camp and cheese. (Check out this trailer for Corman’s 1994 Fantastic Four flick, which is preceded by a commercial for the new Captain America movie. Compare and contrast how far we’ve come.) Now, fanboys want to see the superheroes of their dreams exactly as they dream them. If Hollywood won’t stick to sacred text characterizations of established characters, why don’t they just create original characters to express the ideas they wish to express?

The complaint has merit. The rejoinders that immediately come to mind: 1. I enjoy seeing different interpretations of classic characters, and I can accept them without feeling they nullify other interpretations of a character. That’s why, as a comic book fan myself (albeit one with increasingly moldy touchstones), I enjoyed Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, even though that version of the character is not my favorite interpretation of the character. (That would be the Steven Englehart/Marshall Rogers/Terry Austin version of Batman from the 1970s.) It’s also why I enjoyed Alan Moore’s ultra-relevant reinvention of Swamp Thing in the early ’80s, even though the Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson original needed no improvement. 2. If Hollywood insists on only recycling familiar old brands instead of taking chances on new material (the superhero comic book publishers are currently facing the same problem), then I want to see them do something new and different. Where some see “different” as heresy, I see “interesting,” and often, the only justification for spending my time on something I’ve seen so many times before, in various media.

Hear me: I’m not wild about No. 2. I would much rather see Hollywood take more chances on original material. I’m just saying: If we must tell Superman and Batman and Sherlock and James Bond and Spider-Man stories over and over and over again, then please, give me new riffs each time. That’s one reason why I wasn’t too bothered by The Neck Snap That Snapped Geekdom. For starters, I felt like the story of Man of Steel earned that move by clearly sketching the stakes and portraying Superman as a raw, unrefined superhero, who lacked the training – and imagination –- for how to use his powers without betraying his values. But also, this: there is absolutely nothing any new Superman movie can do to desecrate the icon or invalidate past texts. They exist, forever.

Sherlock did a fine job setting up Sherlock’s violence. I understood why he felt he had to do what he had to do, and why he even wanted to do it. I also understand that this Sherlock is a bit morally ambiguous, as he’s always been, and considers himself, to a degree, above the law, and maybe even beyond good and evil. He’s elemental justice incarnate. His current form can be a seen a clever nod — and challenge — to the zeitgeist. When both Mycroft and Watson likened Holmes to “the east wind,” Moffat was using a line from Arthur Conan Doyle’s “His Last Bow.” But in that story, it was Holmes who said the words, and he was using them to compare and contrast his friend and more conventionally moral Watson to a shift in the culture. “Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be a cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast.” Now think of Sherlock on that plane, seemingly banished for breaking the heroic code of “thou shalt not kill” — and being called back to deal with the apparent resurrection of his arch-nemesis, Moriarty. It was Sherlock gone batty, winging back to save England from his Joker. It was: Look! Up in the sky! It’s bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman gone double-O cold! Break a leg, mate. And a neck, too?

Moffat is a clever, clever man. Maybe too clever? At present, I’m troubled by where how Sherlock finished, and we it leaves us. As much as I like “interesting” interpretations, I thought Sherlock became too super-human this season; I hope season 4 grounds him anew. I also hope the next round of movies explores the ramifications of Sherlock’s homicidal heroism. Does it change the way Watson relates to him? Does it affect the way Holmes relates to himself? The show should take it seriously, because I’m stuck on this point. This incarnation of the master detective is no newbie Superman. He had the smarts to brainstorm more inspired solutions to the problem of Magnusson, and the seasoning to resist a degrading one. Such is his talent and strength that Sherlock could have risen to the challenge of the moment. What Dumbledore said: “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” Sherlock certainly chose easy. Was he also right? Depends if you think heroes should have a license to kill.

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